Touching Sight Is an Eye Opener

Whipped cream is messy, sticky and too sweet for my taste. Once, gobs of it gave me a stomachache. I never liked whipped cream.

Then I met Victor.

The 2-year-old toddler loves the stuff. He squooshes the goo and slaps his hands up and down into the softness. He pats the sticky mess on his face, laughing at the soft squish he hears. And always, he licks his stubby hands clean . . . then asks for more.

Victor is visually impaired, and sometimes he can catch glimpses of the reflection of light in his peripheral vision. But other than the occasional bright flashes, his world has no definable color. Because he can't see, Victor is afraid of touching, and he's averse to being touched.

At the Blind Children's Learning Center in Santa Ana, where I went in February to write a feature story, teachers use whipped cream, among other fun food--such as warm fudge--to show Victor and 32 other visually impaired and blind children what softness feels like. It's one of their first lessons in learning how to reach out toward the unknown.

I've never consciously thought about the texture of whipped cream. Or how celery crunches or tomatoes mush. Or how easy my life is because I can take steps in different directions without fear of falling headlong onto the floor or against a wall.

Then, I spent a few days at this day-care center, where the charges are 6 or younger. I marveled at how these little heroes struggle daily to accomplish things I take for granted.

The assignment was simple: Write a feature about the center and what its programs do for the preschool blind children. Also, make sure there are good pictures.

The photographer did a wonderful job. She captured the children's innocence, their frustration and their dogged determination as they carefully learn, eat and play.

My job, on the other hand, was harder than I had thought.

Reporters have no problem describing how a car careens out of control, how an official angrily waves his arms as he denounces this or that, or how a heartbroken mother cries as she talks about the loss of a child through some freak accident or senseless killing. At one time or another, I've driven wildly, flailed my arms and even cried over the death of a loved one so I know how to depict in words such actions.

But I've never walked or prepared a meal in permanent darkness, never played with nearby sounds as my only guide. How would I do the subject justice?

Today, long after the story was published, I still don't know the answer, really. But I know that in doing it, I learned a lot for myself; I learned it by doing what the children could not do--by watching.

I now have more patience and complain less about trivialities, two valuable lessons.

I learned about patience watching the children prepare their own lunch, something they do once a week at the center. The day I was there, they were excitedly making hamburgers.

From start to finish, with a teacher's voice guiding them, the youngsters did a lot of touching, all the while taking small exploratory footsteps to find their way around the kitchen and dining room. And, when they put together their hamburgers, their nimble little fingers examined the shape, size and texture of everything they put in them.

It took the children about 10 minutes each to load their dishes with vegetables, french fries and hamburgers. If it had been me in their place, I would have flung the plate against the wall in frustration and anger.

Not those patient little ones. There was no self-consciousness, just the sense of independence that preschoolers exude when they prepare their own meal.

As to complaining less, I'm not much of a grouse, but I have my moments. Months before working on the story, I fell off my bike and a pedal dug into my leg, gouging out a chunk of skin. I limped around the office for two days, wincing and encouraging my colleagues' sympathy. Not wanting to repeat the spill, I stayed off the bike for several weeks.

While doing the feature, I interviewed a 12-year-old blind girl who attended the center when she was a preschooler and who is now a fifth-grader at a mainstream school. Shayla was glad to talk about the center, but slightly annoyed that I interrupted her afternoon bike ride down the sidewalk.

I felt sheepish throughout the interview because the probability of falling and stumbling didn't sway blind Shayla from her bike ride, while sighted me had taken a fall and let it scare me away. This young girl unknowingly had made me feel silly. Today, my scar, the size of a large teardrop, reminds me of a resolve made three months ago to grumble less and strive for more.

I've broken that resolution several times. Yet, every time I see whipped cream, I remember the little heroes and how watching them made me vow to be more patient with the curves life throws my way.

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